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Letter to Private Forest Landowners

An open letter to New York's private forest landowners from State Forester Robert K. Davies:

Private citizens, farmers and families from all parts of our state, together, own approximately 80% of New York's forested lands. This vast resource provides you, and all New Yorkers, with clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, storage of carbon to mitigate climate change, recreational opportunities and, periodically, timber and wood products that build and heat homes, support New York's large and diverse forest products industry, and provide economic returns to woodlot owners.

We all share in the responsibility to protect and enhance New York's forests, which we hold in trust for future generations. The ecological health of the landscape, the diversity of our woods for wildlife and rare species, our forests' ability to withstand invasive pests and climatic changes, your ability to produce forest crops that are important to you, and sustainable timber harvests that support New York's multi-million dollar forest products industry all depend on the personal management decisions private owners make about their woods. It's a big responsibility, and one not to be taken lightly!

The average family or farm forest owner has many different reasons for owning their woodlots, and many different goals and objectives for it. With appropriate management or "silviculture" (defined as: the science-based tending and regenerating of forest stands to realize property-owner-desired benefits and sustain them over time), property owners can maintain their forests indefinitely, while using them today for many different purposes . That is the essence of sustainable forestry. It means keeping forests healthy, productive and available for future generations. This includes monitoring forest health and other conditions, maintaining appropriate numbers, kinds and ages of trees, enhancing the growth and vigor of desirable species, and regenerating new trees and forests when the current ones reach maturity or no longer serve your needs and objectives.

Because trees of good form and marketable species have value for a host of products that people depend on for daily living, woodlot owners can often sell excess and mature trees to generate revenue and pay off their investments in ownership and management. These periodic timber harvests and sales can often help meet your short- and long-term needs and objectives if planned and executed with the future in mind. Unfortunately, many woodlot owners neither use silviculture nor practice sustainable forestry. Instead they rely on an unsustainable cutting practice known as diameter-limit cutting, often called "selective cutting", which, simplistically, removes large trees and leaves smaller ones. In some cases, only commercially valuable trees are cut. This practice, called high-grading, leaves poor-quality, unhealthy, damaged or trees of low commercial value behind.

Neither diameter-limit cutting nor high-grading tries to improve your remaining woods, which should always be a goal of sustainable forestry. Nor do these practices deliberately regenerate new, desirable trees to replace the ones removed by the cutting, ensuring and improving your future woodlot. As a result, your next "forest" may have a patchy and irregular mix of open and crowded areas, short and poorly-formed trees, or trees of low economic value. This creates undesirable conditions within your forest and reduces the potential for producing consistent amounts of wood products (including firewood or timber) and maintaining diverse wildlife habitats and other forest values. It also may open your woods up to being overrun by ferns or other undesirable, non-native invasive plants such as garlic mustard, buckthorn, Japanese barberry or multiflora rose. The situation usually worsens when a second or third diameter-limit cut is done in the same stand in future years.

This problem highlights the need and opportunity for better stewardship of wooded lands following recognized, sustainable forestry principles and the advice of a professional forester. With public benefits at stake, such as clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and future timber supplies, as well as your personal benefits, some states (and localities) have implemented government regulations designed to ensure sound forest stewardship and conservation. To date, New York State largely relies on education, technical and financial assistance for private woodlot owners to promote sustainable forestry. Professional forestry services and assistance are available from DEC Foresters as well as private sector foresters such as those participating in DEC's Cooperating Forester Program. For further information, you can refer to the useful resources in the right column of this page.

I hope you will appreciate the vital role and responsibility you have, as a New York woodlot owner, in conserving and sustaining New York's forest resources and how your management decisions and activities can benefit your personal interests and those of all New Yorkers. In particular, I hope you will see the unintended and undesirable impacts that unsustainable cutting practices such as "diameter-limit cutting" and "high-grading" can have on your present and future forest, and all the resources, benefits and services they provide. Remember, prior planning, with the help and guidance of a professional forester, will help you get the most out of your forest land, no matter what your goals might be. If you have any questions about managing your forest lands, please contact the nearest DEC regional forestry office.

Thank you for your care for New York's great private forests,

Robert K. Davies
New York State Forester